Solo: A Star Wars Story Review
Solo: A Star Wars Story is fan service of the highest order. Everything you expect to see visualized in this film is there: Han and Chewbacca’s first meeting, Han winning the Millenium Falcon from Lando Calrissian in a card game, Han making the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs (finally, parsecs are properly explained as a unit of distance, not time). We also get to see what some of these beloved characters were like in their youth (Donald Glover’s Lando steals every scene he’s in). Outside of a few surprising or rousing moments, the usual humor, and some spirited performances, the whole thing feels just a touch too formulaic.
Whether or not this fan service appeals to you depends entirely on what kind of Star Wars fan you are. This film is essentially the antidote to the introspective and irreverent The Last Jedi. It’s the kind of film those who despised that film seem to have desired: one where payoffs to setups are highlighted so that no one can miss them, where artistic vision bends to brand management, and even the smallest of references are placed under a spotlight for the audience’s recognition.
Thankfully, this is all served up with just enough panache to make it interesting. There are a number of scenes that fill out the mythology of the universe in ways that are only tangentially related to Han, Chewbacca, and other established characters. These are easily the most intriguing sections of the film, where director Ron Howard (replacing Phil Lord and Christopher Miller) and cinematographer Bradford Young treat your eyes to vistas you probably haven’t seen before. And if you’re familiar with the cultural touchstones the director is borrowing from, Howard at least freshens them up a bit and makes them feel lived in.
We meet young Han (Alden Ehrenreich) and his partner-in-crime/girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) on Corellia, a shipbuilding planet that runs on forced labor, some of it involving children. Han and Qi’ra serve Lady Proxima, a centipede-like creature who uses child thieves to steal coaxiom, or condensed hyperfuel. The charcoal-dusted visuals, cramped alleyways and rusty facades, and English accents add up to futuristic Charles Dickens. Han and Qi’ra attempt to escape the planet; Han succeeds, but Qi’ra is captured, with Han promising to come back for her. Han joins the Imperial navy but ends up serving in the infantry, where he meets his future partners Tobias (Woody Harrelson) and Val (Thandie Newton). The muddy trenches and suicidal cavalry charges in this sequence are straight-out of a World War I picture like Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. It’s on this planet where Han meets Chewbacca. A heist of a mountainside monorail evokes classic Westerns, where cowboys leap from horses onto speeding locomotives. The story follows this trend from action setpiece to action setpiece for the length of its runtime.
The character of Han Solo was introduced in 1977 by George Lucas, gouging an old man and a farm boy for as much money as possible, before preemptively murdering a bounty hunter in full view of a cantina full of patrons. Nothing in Solo is as daring as any of these choices–it’s a very safe film. As played by Harrison Ford, Solo was a loveable antihero who, compared to the rest of the characters in the film, had a dangerous edge to him, albeit one that Lucas and company almost immediately began sanding down. As the young Solo, Alden Ehrenreich just doesn’t convince as a cocksure, arrogant young smuggler who’s prematurely soured by a hard-knock life.
At least, he doesn’t convince as this particular smuggler. He’s likable, and does “arrogant” and “confident” well, but if this film was determined to cast someone who didn’t look or act like the Han we meet in A New Hope, it might’ve have been a good idea to cast someone who could become the smuggler we know and love. Lucas pulled this off when he hired Ewan McGregor to play the young Obi-Wan Kenobi in the prequel films; McGregor somehow managed to channel the voice and mannerisms of Alec Guinness while still giving his own performance. Ehrenreich achieves the latter thing here, but not so spectacularly that you forget about the first part.
Some of the performers are spectacular in this film; the aforementioned, scene-stealing Donald Glover, who very much “McGregors” the role of Lando. Yet others seem lost; Emilia Clarke’s character has a myriad of layers, but they all seem out of harmony with each other. She just seems too nice to be doing the things she does in the film. Paul Bettany is the first major player in a Star Wars film to leave no impression at all; that said, he was probably doing the best he could. He was originally brought on to replace Michael Kenneth Williams, who was unavailable for reshoots and was originally supposed to portray a CGI character, so he was probably working with a role that was being rewritten on the fly without damaging the overall narrative structure. Westworld‘s Thandie Newton gets little screentime, and Harrelson plays a role that any fiftysomething actor who could twirl a gun, crack wise, and smirk could have given us.
I say all of this as a lifelong fan of this series while acknowledging the struggles this film faced. Ever since its acquisition of the franchise, Disney has been attempting to Marvel-ize the Star Wars universe, stretching out the Skywalker saga and spinning yarns adjacent to that primary storyline. Solo doesn’t have the same room to change things up as Rogue One did; it’s working with a primary character who we know can’t die in this film. Rogue One, on the other hand, was filled with major players who were completely new to the audience. Solo isn’t the first film to give us a look into the pasts of characters we knew from previous incarnations. The prequel trilogy gave us a plethora of information on Anakin Skywalker, Yoda, Palpatine, and others. That said, it is the first Star Wars film that seems to exist as a vector for visuals that fans have always daydreamed about, or read about in the now non-canon extended universe. And in that situation, no filmmaker can do justice to the scenarios we’ve been imagining for years.
Solo exceeds spectacularly in one regard: it gives a strong sense of Han and Chewbacca’s relationship. How it formed, how it coalesced, and what it gave to each of them. Now that we’ve experienced the full arc of Solo’s life, all previous interactions between the two take on a haunting, sorrowful undertow. We learn that Chewbacca was already 180-years-old when he met Han. The sheer amount of time the Wookie has spent in the universe flips our perception of the friendship between the two and places the end of The Force Awakens in a new context. If the entirety of Solo was as charming and unexpected as the dynamic between those two, it would have been a classic. As it stands, it’s a fun way to kill a couple of hours.